Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Exploring the mechanisms of self-sabotage

In Brief

Exploring the mechanisms of self-sabotage

A study suggests that how people react to success or failure depends not so much on their performance, but rather on their underlying beliefs about intelligence.

Researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Washington first used a questionnaire to determine the degree to which 118 undergraduate participants viewed their skills and capabilities as fixed (a belief the authors label the "entity theory") or malleable (the "incremental theory"). The students then took a computerized test, which they were told was designed to measure a particular type of intelligence. Researchers pretended to score the test, but in fact all students were ranked in the 61st percentile.

After the first test, all students received a lesson on how to improve their scores. Then they took a second computerized test. Once again, the researchers only pretended to score the tests. Instead, they randomly assigned three scores, telling students they scored in the 29th, 62nd, or 91st percentile. Thus, despite the lesson, some participants believed that they had significantly improved, some believed that they had done significantly worse, and some believed that their performance remained the same. At this point, the researchers assessed participants' mood. Finally, the students took a third test equal in difficulty to the first two — but this time, their performance actually was evaluated.

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